Monday, January 28, 2008


My latest article for Suicide Girls went up this morning at 6AM Pacific Time. Like all of the SG columnists, I am now monthly rather than weekly, as we were for the first half of 2007, or bi-weekly as we were for the rest of last year. It sucks. But apparently management over there figures people look at the site for the titties and not the articles. They're wrong. The articles they have over there are really good. Go read some of them. I'll be posting once a month. Unless they decide to make us all like bi-annually or something.

Anyway, it's up there. I'll be interested to see the reaction to this one. I never know when I'm saying stuff that's controversial. I wish I did. Sometimes I'll put something out there that feels really edgy to me and nobody even notices. Other times I'll put something up that seems ridiculously trivial and everybody goes hog wild over it. I'm not even gonna jinx this one by saying how I feel about it.

Yesterday I walked into a Goodwill in downtown Los Angeles and started looking through a stack of records in the back. Seasoned Goodwill record shopper that I am, I expected to find the usual pile of unknown disco 12 inch singles, polka records and copies of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. But lo and behold what do I find but a stack of like 15 Bruce Springsteen vinyl bootlegs. Most are live shows from the 70s, but a couple are collections of unreleased studio out-takes. I'm not a big Bruce nut, but I can tell these are worth a lot more than the 99 cents a piece I paid for them. Anyone who knows their stuff about The Boss, please write me and I'll tell you what I got. I was enjoying some of them last night. There was also a double LP of a Peter Gabriel show at the Roxy in 1977 and the legendary Who bootleg, Who's Zoo. Pretty neat.

Here's the list of upcoming out-of-town events again:

February 29 - March 2 Retreat at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center. I don't have contact info yet. So just check the webpage & see who it says to contact for info.

April 25 - 27 Retreat at Southern Dharma Retreat Center in North Carolina. Again, I don't have contact info, so check the website.

May 4th 0DFX gig at Kent State University (May 4th, 1970 was the day four students were shot by the National Guard at Kent State, the event immortalized in Neil Young's song "Ohio")

August 9-16 I'll be one of the teachers at the Great Sky Sesshin in Southern Minnesota. The webpage is still last year's info. But it's pretty much the same deal each year.

The annual Dogen Sangha Zen Retreat will be held in Shizuoka, Japan in early September and I'm planning to be there as well.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Vince Anilla of Still Point Zen Center in Detroit sent me this nice story about Kobun Chino, teacher of my first Zen teacher.

As a master of Zen archery, Kobun was asked to teach a course at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. The target was set up on a beautiful grassy area on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Kobun took his bow, notched the arrow, took careful aim, and shot. The arrow sailed high over the target, went past the railing, beyond the cliff, only to plunge into the ocean far below. Kobun looked happily at the shocked students and shouted, "Bull's eye!!"

That's the fundamental attitude in Zen. It's important to take careful aim. But you can't ever know where your practice will lead. Don't get all flamboozled if it flies over the cliff and lands in the ocean.

As I get deeper and deeper into it, I find that Buddhism is nothing at all like what I expected it to be. And it's sure as hell nothing like all of our great pop culture pundits of Buddhism say it is. It might be that Buddhism is the act of aiming the arrow that is your life.

Life lands you in all kinds of funky-ass situations. You have to act out of where you really are, not out of some ideal of where you think you ought to be. That whole "ought to" business is just a waste of time anyway. It's never what it ought to be. You can't do what you ought to do.

In 2007 my whole life was turned upside down and shaken thoroughly. Yet here I am, living on the beach in California in a lovely and peaceful old house among surroundings so beautiful and idyllic they make me want to weep. I'm not who I ought to be. I don't do what I ought to do. I don't even know what I ought to do anymore. I don't care.

Occasionally someone sends me an e-mail or posts something to this blog about what I ought to be, or say, or do. I used to care. Isn't that funny? Caring about what people think I ought to be, say or do has never led to anything but misery.

But I do care deeply about taking aim.

Expose your life to public scrutiny and everyone will nitpick and chime in with some half-baked opinion. Fuck 'em.

Take aim carefully and let your arrow-life fly.


Monday, January 21, 2008


First of all, thanks to the nice folks at Lake Claremont Press for sending me a copy of their book From Shock Theater to Svengoolie, all about TV horror movie hosts in Chicago. Cool book! TV horror movie hosts were a big part of my growing up years. Now sadly they all seem to be gone. I guess they served a useful purpose in the 60s and 70s which is now being served by others. The Ghoul in Cleveland used to have to hide behind a goofy fake goatee and sunglasses to say what needed saying. Now we have a lot more freedom in what we can say. Good. I like the world today better than the one I grew up in and I like younger people better than the members of my own generation. Even we ex-punk rock kids are way more uptight than people in their twenties these days -- speaking in sweeping generalities of course (as usual). I'm optimistic for the future. Cautiously.

Someone asked for an explanation of Gudo's recent answer to Jordan regarding karma. I went and looked at Gudo's blog and it seemed pretty clear to me. But maybe that's because I'm pretty steeped in how Gudo explains stuff.

Basically, the word karma is often misunderstood as being analogous to the concept of fate. There's the idea that you have your karma, the big load of past actions we all carry with us, and these determine our future. To an extent this is true. We cannot escape the effects of the causes we've set in motion. But this point of view is only relevant when we look at time in the usual linear fashion.

Real time in the Buddhist sense is only now. Right now we have complete freedom to act. Our karma sets up certain limitations to this action. Right now my karma has placed me in Torrance, California at a Whole Foods supermarket. Because of this karma I cannot, for example, take any action at my friend Nina's house in Los Feliz immediately. I have to drive there first and it takes time to get there on the perpetually congested So Cal freeways. All of that stuff is karma.

But I am perfectly free at this moment to take any action at all that my karmic circumstances will allow. These words I am writing, for example, are not predetermined. Yet if we were to stand back later on we could trace a line of cause and effect that might make even the words I'm writing at this moment seem to have been predetermined.

But look at your life right now and any notion of predetermination falls to dust.

Still, we need to be careful what we do. There are always effects. Yet we can't be timid. We need to act with a certain degree of boldness. Knowing there will be effects of our action that we cannot be aware of, still we act anyway.

For example, I'm in the midst of writing a new book. In it I am seeking to uproot, rather violently, a lot of the notions of what a Zen teacher ought to be. I'm concerned that the book will make a lot of people upset. It attacks some very fondly held illusions. Yet I believe the overall effect of attacking these illusions will be positive. I believe it's necessary.

Part of me wants to be timid and not push things. But my intuition tells me it's better to push hard because nobody else will do it and it needs to be done.

I think we all struggle with this kind of thing all the time. It's hard to know what's right to do. And so I practice zazen everyday. I believe the balance established in the practice will aid me in seeing what's best to do.


Happy MLK Jr. Day!

Friday, January 18, 2008


As some folks already pointed out, I got an article in the latest ish of Shambhala Sun. It's the March, 2008 issue. You'll recognize it because it's the issue of Shambhala Sun with the Dalai Lama on the cover. Oh wait, the Dalai Lama is on the cover of every issue of Shambhala Sun. So it's the Buddhist mag that has the picture of the Dalai Lama on the cover. No, that won't work, they all have the Dalia Lama on the cover of every single issue. OK. It's the mag on the stands at your local new age book store with the Dalai Lama on the cover. No, that won't do either....

Just look on page 32 or 33 of every mag with the Dalai Lama on it and see if there's an article by me there with a picture of the Dalai Lama accompanying it.

Actually, it's a picture of Nansen slicing up a kitty cat. I guess they ran out of photos of Mr. Lama. Or they didn't have one of him knifing a kitten.

I got a few upcoming gigs. So those of you who write me saying it's distasteful that I plug my speaking gigs and retreats here, please avert your eyes:

February 29 - March 2 Retreat at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center. I don't have contact info yet. So just check the webpage & see who it says to contact for info.

April 25 - 27 Retreat at Southern Dharma Retreat Center in North Carolina. Again, I don't have contact info, so check the website.

May 4th 0DFX gig at Kent State University (May 4th, 1970 was the day four students were shot by the National Guard at Kent State, the event immortalized in Neil Young's song "Ohio")

The annual Dogen Sangha Zen Retreat will be held in Shizuoka, Japan in early September and I'm planning to be there as well.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


... but not in that order. Yesterday I did an interview with a public radio show called Interfaith Voices. My interview will be on next week's show, from Thurs. Jan 24- Wed. Jan. 30th. Here's the list of the 40 stations we're on to find outwhen to tune in: If your local public radio station isn't on that list, you can check out the story on their Web site,, starting Friday the 25th. They also have a podcast you can subscribe to by clicking on the purple "add to iTunes" box on the top left of their home page.

When I was up at San Francisco Zen Center I got to meet the legendary David Chadwick, author of Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki and one of my all time fave books about Zen and Japan, Thank You and Ok!: An American Zen Failure in Japan. Go buy them both. He also maintains a great website about Shunryu Suzuki called David was attending the cremation ceremony for Idilio, a longtime Zen Center resident.

I have moved into my new home. But I am still without an Internet connection of my own. So I have to rely on cafes and libraries. Right now I'm in Whole Foods in Torrance using their kindly provided free wireless internet. I may become an expert at finding free wireless internet since my income has shrunk drastically lately. This means I have even less ability to respond to all the nice e-mails people send me than I did before.

I was sitting Zazen this morning and this thought flew by. A lot of people sit Zazen and find their brains full of noise and chatter, then they think that this stuff is a distraction to their "real" practice. No. That chatter and noise is your real practice.

I'd venture to say that about half the questions I get from book and blog readers are some variation on this problem and my answer is some variation on that answer. No matter how many times I rephrase it, though, someone always comes along with a "Yeah, but..." and I need to find a new way to say the same thing. This is fine, since it keeps me off the streets and out of trouble. And my various rephrasings of this same answer continue to sell as new books and Suicide Girls articles.

Gotta go look for new ways to make money now. Gotta eat, you know. Suggestions welcome.


Monday, January 14, 2008


I'm back from San Francisco and down in Los Angeles again. Long time readers will note that the links to the weekly Zen classes at Hill Street Center and the all-day Zazen have finally been updated, for the first time since August. Sorry about that. I'll try to be better.

Just to reiterate what's there, there will be a Zen class next Saturday, the 19th of January and I'll be there. The all-day sitting for January will be on the 26th. YOU MUST RESERVE AHEAD OF TIME TO ATTEND THAT. Please, please, please do reserve a spot. It's really difficult to do the meal service if people just show up without reserving first.

I'm without a home internet connection now and will be doing my writing and posting from libraries and coffee shops until I get that rectified. If I get it rectified. We'll see how freeloading off of coffee shops and libraries goes.

And what the fuck's going on in the comments section of this blog? It just seems totally random. Barak Obama and the Masons? I'm sorry. I can't figure it out. Anyway, whatever.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


The whole teacher/student thing is interesting to watch. At a big residential place like San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) where I've been staying for the past week or so, it's vital to keep some clear lines of demarcation between teachers and students. The rakusus (little bib-like thingies you get when you receive the Buddhist precepts) are color coded so that you instantly know who here is a priest, who is a lay person and who has dharma transmission. Blue is for lay people, black for non-transmitted priests and brown is for transmitted teachers. Only priests can wear an o-kesa (the sash-like thingy over your shoulder), though other people can wear robes. And non-black o-kesas are a big no-no for anyone not having received transmission. There are written rules for how these various levels should interact. If you want to keep a large scale residential practice center operating smoothly, it's nearly impossible to avoid some variation on this kind of practice.

It's very different, though, from the way I came through the ranks. Even in the matter of rakusus, Nishijima Sensei's policy has always been that whatever color you like is fine. In his lineage anyone can take the precepts, and anyone who does so he considers to be a monk. There's no division between a lay person and a priest. Everyone is encouraged to wear o-kesas, though even I seldom do (sorry, sensei!). Dharma transmission is a different matter. You don't just get that cuz you ask for it as is the case with the precepts. But this too is handled more loosely than it is at SFZC. In Nishijima's line there are no specific steps you must complete before being eligible for transmission. It's more a matter of how Nishijima Sensei or one of his dharma heirs feels about your ability to understand the teaching and practice.

In the worldwide Zen community you'll find all sorts of variations from super tight Soto-shu style which makes even SFZC's style look like a cakewalk, to super loose teachers who make Nishijima's style look like pure Japanese authoritarianism.

In my own case I have been avoiding calling anyone who studies with me "my student." I remember dealing with one Zen teacher who, the very minute he got his robes and started teaching, was all "my student" this and "my student" that. He seemed to cram those words into everything he said just to make sure you knew he had students. It was comical, I tell ya! Maybe that's where my aversion comes from. But casting my mind back to days gone by I'm hard pressed to think of a single instance when my first teacher, Tim, ever called anyone his student. And I can only think of a few times I've heard Nishijima Sensei say it either -- though he does not avoid the word entirely like I do.

The usual teacher/student relationship involves authority and power. As such it can easily be perverted. In fact it seems that it requires great care just to keep such relationships from getting weird right from the get-go.

Anyway. Even once I start giving the precepts to people I will still won't consider any of them "my students." They'll still just be my zazen buddies, like some people have drinking buddies or golf buddies. Please do me a favor and don't start thinking of yourselves as my students either. OK? We cool? Good.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008


This morning I got to visit and sit with the folks at the Berkley Zen Center across the Bay Bridge. I also had the great honor to have breakfast with Mel "Sojun Roshi" Weitsman, one of the first whiteys in this country to take up the Soto style of Zen practice. How did I get so lucky in this lifetime? Plus the breakfast was really good. As soon as I get back to Los Angeles I'm never eating again. I've had enough delicious eats for a lifetime.

They do things differently at Berkeley even from the way they do them at SFZC, which surprised me. Apparently the style at Berkley is closer to what Suzuki Roshi did with his first students. It's just little things. The verse for putting on your robe is a different translation, and they don't do kinhin (walking zen) but instead make a little "clunk" on the big bell at which time people readjust their positions or leave if they have somewhere to go. A couple other things were different.

It's good to see these variations, especially in two temples that are very closely connected. There needs to be a lot of variety in Zen practice. But that doesn't mean that each teacher should not insist upon his or her own way. I don't think a lot of people get that. I mean when I instruct people on shikantaza and say that's the only true way to do zazen, it does not follow that I want to send everyone who doesn't do shikantaza to the gas chambers. It may be that because of the terrible things committed in the names of our Western religions in their quest to destroy all unbelievers, we Westerners tend to read intolerance where it does not exist. It is important for a teacher to be strongly committed to his or her own way. Teachers that try to be too P.C. do their students a great disservice. Insist upon your way and let the students decide if that's the way they want to pursue or not. But always insist.

In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha gives a talk and a bunch of people who don't like what he's saying turn and walk out on him. Somebody, I think it's Ananda, says, "Hey Buddha, everybody's walking out on you!"

Buddha says, "That they leave is also good."

If you leave my place and I think you're a butt-face for doing so, ask yourself why you even care if a guy whose teaching you don't like thinks you're a butt-face. It's an important question. If you don't care, fine. If you do care, maybe there's a reason for that. As there was a reason I cared about Nishijima even though I hated his teaching when I first encountered it. As Shunryu Suzuki once said, "Any teaching that doesn't seem to be forcing itself on you is not good teaching."

Just some thoughts for the day. Now I'm gonna go write that book some more.

Monday, January 07, 2008


Get it? "Hara" is a Japanese word that refers to your belly and the lower part of your chest, about where your diaphragm is. Some Zen teachers tell you to "Keep your mind in your hara." I don't. Your mind pervades throughout your body and throughout the universe. It seems silly to try and imagine it being in one specific place. So there's that, and I'm in San Francisco. Haw!

Anyway, they say you're not a real writer unless you can come up with ten excuses not to write at any given moment. This I can do. I am the worst procrastinator in the world when it comes to writing. I will even write to avoid writing, as I am doing now.

I'm still here at the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) and not in disguise. I've stopped shaving with a regular razor and now use an electric one to get that stubbly Don Johnson look. What an 80s reference! Kids, ask mom and dad who Don Johnson was. It's easier and your face feels less frigid with some stubble on it especially up here. What would Dogen say? Feel free to come up and say "hi." Just don't get insulted if I excuse myself to run upstairs and watch my KISS DVDs... I mean write my frikkin' new book.

SFZC is very interesting to me. It's very much a communal, monastic practice and not at all what I'm used to. Here I am, a transmitted Master, and I have no idea half the things they do here. I don't know the chants, I don't know when to bow, I'm not sure what order to leave the room, none of that stuff. Clueless. I just watch carefully and try to figure out what the heck's going on. A hint if you find yourself in a similar situation: Try to stand or sit in the middle. In most places, sitting on the end is best since everybody will have done what's gonna be done before your turn comes. But in Zen places sometimes the order suddenly reverses and, as the Bible tells us, "He who is last becomes first." So the middle is always the best spot to figure out what's going on.

It seems to me the bigger an organization gets the more need there is for rules and for hierarchy. You could not run an organization as big as SFZC the way we run things at my sitting groups. Couldn't be done. SFZC runs very efficiently and shows all the indications that they've overcome their well publicized past troubles and will endure for a very long time.

I think rules and institutional hierarchy have their place. But there are significant differences in how I run things. For example, they do a lovely morning service here every day and I have enjoyed participating in it very much. But in terms of practice it's not really necessary. There is no reason on Earth that chanting sutras is in any way particularly beneficial to Zen practice. But it is very beneficial to building a united community and maintaining an institution. If you're SFZC, these factors are vital to your continued existence. If you're just someone interested in Zen practice, they're not. Understand that -- and I think most of the folks here do -- and the chants and rituals are fine family fun and not at all a distraction. Still, a big group outing to the local ice cream parlor could be just as beneficial to your Zen practice, though considerably more fattening.

OK. Chanting sutras may be slightly better. But don't mistake it for real Zen practice. I see lots more people at the chanting services than in the zendo here and pretty much everywhere else I visit.

Just some quick reflections. Now I'm going to start my real work.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

SANDOKAI (Harmony of Sameness and Difference)

I'm still here at the San Francisco Zen Center where I just participated in the Saturday morning service. Another round of Zazen starts in about 15 minutes and I'm going for it. But while I'm waiting I thought I'd share with you something they chant up here a whole lot, the "Harmony of Sameness and Difference" by Sekito Kisen (700-790). It's a very nice text. Shunryu Suzuki wrote about it in a book called Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai.

I don't got time to do any kind of commentary or nothin'. So here it is in its raw form. Enjoy.


The mind of the great sage of India
is intimately transmitted from west to east.
While human faculties are sharp or dull,
the Way has no northern or southern ancestors.

The spiritual source shines clear in the light;
the branching streams flow on in the dark.
Grasping at things is surely delusion;
according with sameness is still not enlightenment.

All the objects of the senses interact and yet do not.
Interacting brings involvement.
Otherwise, each keeps its place.

Sights vary in quality and form,
sounds differ as pleasing or harsh.
Refined and common speech come together
in the dark, clear and murky phrases are
distinguished in the light.

The four elements return to their natures
just as a child turns to its mother;
Fire heats, wind moves, water wets, earth is solid.

Eye and sights, ear and sounds, nose and smells, tongue and tastes;
Thus with each and every thing,
depending on these roots, the leaves spread forth.
Trunk and branches share the essence;
revered and common, each has its speech.

In the light there is darkness,
but don't take it as darkness;
In the dark there is light, but don't see it as light.
Light and dark oppose one another
like the front and back foot in walking.

Each of the myriad things has its merit,
expressed according to function and place.
Phenomena exist; box and lid fit;
principle responds; arrow points meet.

Hearing the words, understand the meaning;
don't set up standards of your own.
If you don't understand the Way right before you,
how will you know the path as you walk?

Progress is not a matter of far or near,
but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.
I respectfully urge you who study the mystery,
do not pass your days and nights in vain.

Friday, January 04, 2008


So I'm answering piles of e-mail that have accumulated since I've been out of Internet reach. One of them was from a woman whose mom is a hardcore fundamentalist Christian. She wanted to know how to tell her mom about Buddhism. Here's what I wrote (slightly modified):

I never know what to say about Buddhism to people who have very fixed ideas about religion. Sometimes it seems like no matter what you say it's going to be shoved into some pre-ordained slot in their mind.

A few tried and true lines that sometimes get me out of trouble are: Buddhism isn't a religion, it's a philosophy. Buddhists don't worship Buddha or believe he was a God or a supernatural being of any kind. Buddha was an ordinary man who Buddhists regard as a kind of genius the way we think of Einstein or Beethoven as geniuses. The statues of Buddha are kind of like statues of Aristotle or Plato. Buddhists bow to these statues to show their respect, not to worship them.

It's perfectly acceptable to Buddhists if you're a Christian and a Buddhist at the same time. I know Christians often have a hard time accepting that, but Buddhists don't. Buddha's philosophy emphasizes compassion, kindness and physical and mental stability. We do our meditation practice to try and develop these qualities, not to go into some kind of spiritual trance or experience some kind of altered mental state. The very still and quiet feeling of meditation helps you become more stable and calm so that you are more able to act with kindness and compassion.

Just keep emphasizing that it's not a religion and that it is compatible with Christian beliefs. If she tries to research Buddhism she might find that other people do describe it as a religion (especially Christians who fear Buddhism, and even some Buddhists themselves). If she has studied it and holds some of these beliefs, I'd tell her that it is true some sects of Buddhism are more religious. It's even true there are Buddhists who think of Buddha as some kind of God. But tell her that Zen Buddhists are not like that, especially the ones who follow the philosophy of Dogen. Though it may be going too "deep" to try and explain Dogen to her. You could just say he was a 13th century Japanese Buddhist who tried to strip away all the religious aspects of Buddhism because he thought those religious aspects were not true to Buddha's original intention. This is arguable, of course. Some scholars regard Dogen as very religious. It really depends on how you define "religious." But it's one legitimate way to explain Dogen when you're talking to someone who's not going to listen to all the other details anyway.

Or just point out the window and yell, "Look! It's Big Foot!" And when she turns around to look outside, run away. That works too.

Man, I'm wasting time not finishing my third book. Gotta go do that.


Thursday, January 03, 2008


Happy New Year! And a wonderful, auspicious, prosperous and whatever else 2008 to all of you. Including that dirtball in the comments section who didn't like "Go Blue Go Die."

I spent my New Year's Eve and Day at Tassajara Zen Monastery in Carmel Valley, California and it was wonderful beyond words. I'm too sleepy to write a lot of details tonight. Besides, I'm staying at the San Francisco Zen Center for a few days and they require you to get up at 5AM and do Zazen, so I'm not gonna stay up late typing in this stupid blog.

But among the zillions of truly nice things that happened at Tassajara, here's one interesting (to me, anyway) one. I was just reading about Bob Dylan's famous "basement tapes" -- the "lost" album he recorded in 1967, some of which was released around 1975 but most of which remains unreleased even today. Reading about the tapes made me want to listen to them. But you have to search pretty hard to find the bootlegs that contain the best stuff. I had vague plans to do this after I left Tassajara.

Well. It just so happens I was talking to a long term resident at Tassajara named David Coady. I was telling him about this Dylan song I'd been listening to recently called "Odds and Ends" that contains the very Dogen-like line, "Lost time will not be found again." The song is one of the few "basement tapes" items to have been officially released.

And he mentions that the only things he saved from a once mighty and extensive collection of CDs was a little box containing a few Dylan CDs including the entire 5 disc series of bootleg "Basement Tapes." He was kind enough to lend these to me and I am now uploading them into iTunes even as I type this.

Weird, huh?

Anyway, here's a song (not from the "basement tapes") I've been thinking of lately that seems to encapsulate much of my feeling of late. It's not one of my own this time. It's by Robyn Hitchcock from his album Stars For Bram. Click on the song title to hear it.


by Robyn Hitchcock

Sometimes a bomb is not enough
To express the way I feel
And an explosion in the dark
Won't let you down
Sometimes a kiss is not enough
You just have to make it two
Darling I love you inside out
And upside down
I love you
Like a bomb
In my heart
Sometimes a kiss goes on so long
And it just won't let you go
Darling I love you inside out
And upside down
I love you
Like a bomb
In my heart
Daisy bomb
Daisy bomb
Daisy bomb